Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was an American singer who first came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was widely noted for his soft, baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres and which he used to become a major force in popular music forTHREE decades producing many hit songs.
Cole was one of the first African Americans toHOST a national television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show, and has maintained worldwide popularity since his death from lung cancer in February 1965.
Inspired by the performances of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid-1930s while still a teenager, adopting the name Nat Cole. His older brother, Eddie, a bass player, soon joined Cole's band, and they made their first recording in 1936 under Eddie's name. They also were regular performers at clubs. Cole acquired his nickname, "King", performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise unrelated nursery rhyme about "Old King Cole". He also was a pianist in a national tour of Broadway theatre legend Eubie Blake's revue Shuffle Along. When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there. He would laterRETURN to Chicago in triumph to play such venues as the famedEdgewater Beach Hotel.
Cole and two other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingsters" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US$90 ($1,530 today) per week. The trio consisted of Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Failsworth throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions for Capitol Transcriptions.Cole was not only pianist but leader of the combo as well.
Legend was that Cole's singing career did notSTART until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine". Cole, in fact, has gone on record saying that the fabricated story "sounded good, so I just let it ride". Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet the story of the insistent customer is not without some truth. There was a customer whoREQUESTED a certain song one night, but it was a song that Cole did not know, so instead he sang "Sweet Lorraine". The trio was tipped 15 cents ($0.85 today) for the performance, a nickel apiece.
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller. Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950s. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943. The group had previously recorded for Excelsior Records, owned by Otis René, and had a hit with the song "I'm Lost", which René wrote, produced and distributed. Revenues from Cole's record sales fueled much of Capitol Records' success during this period. The revenue is believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles.COMPLETED in 1956, it was the world's first circular office building and became known as "TheHOUSE that Nat Built".
I started out to become a jazz pianist; in the meantime I started singing and I sang the way I felt and that's just the way it came out. — Nat King Cole, Voice of America interview
Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right", based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon. Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for his fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, proving that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Cole would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
"King Cole Trio Time" on NBC in 1947 with Cole, Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller.
In 1946, the Cole trio paid to have their own 15-minute radio program on the air, called "King Cole Trio Time." It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During those years, the trio recorded many "transcription" recordings, which were recordings made in the radio studio for the broadcast. Later they were used for commercial records.
BEGINNINGin the late 1940s, Cole began recording and performing pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, in which he was often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits such as "The Christmas Song" (Cole recorded the song four times: on June 14, 1946, as a Trio recording, on August 19, 1946, with an added string section, on August 24, 1953, and in 1961 for the double album The Nat King Cole Story; this final version, recorded in stereo, is the one most often heard today), "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" (1946), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951) (Gainer 1). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he neverCOMPLETELYabandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956 he recorded an all-jazz album After Midnight. Cole had one of his last major hits in 1963, two years before his death, with "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer", which reached #6 on the Pop chart. "Unforgettable” was made famous again in 1991 by Cole's daughter Natalie when modern recording technology was used to reunite father and daughter in a duet. The duet version rose to the top of the Pop charts, almost forty years after its original popularity.
On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. The variety program was the first of its kind hosted by an African-American, which created controversy at the time. Beginning as a 15-minute pops show on Monday night, the program was expanded to a half hour in July 1957. Despite the efforts of NBC, as well as many of Cole's industry colleagues—many of whom, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and backing vocal group The Cheerleaders worked for industry scale (or even for noPAY) in order to help the show saveMONEY—The Nat King Cole Show was ultimately done in by lack of a national sponsorship. Companies such as Rheingold Beer assumed regional sponsorship of the show, but a national sponsor never appeared.
The last episode of The Nat King Cole Show aired December 17, 1957. Cole had survived for over a year, and it was he, not NBC, who ultimately decided to pull the plug on the show. Commenting on the lack of sponsorship his show received, Cole quipped shortly after its demise, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Throughout the 1950s, ColeCONTINUED to rack up successive hits, selling in millions throughout the world, including "Smile", "Pretend", "A Blossom Fell", and "If I May". His pop hits were collaborations with well-known arrangers and conductors of the day, including Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Ralph Carmichael. Riddle arranged several of Cole's 1950s albums, including his first 10-inch long-play album, his 1953 Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love. In 1955, his single "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" reached #7 on the Billboard chart. Jenkins arranged Love Is the Thing, which hit #1 on the charts in April 1957 remaining for 8 weeks. This was the only song that hit #1.
In 1958, Cole went to Havana, Cuba, to record Cole Español, an album sung entirely in Spanish. The album was so popular in Latin America, as well as in the USA, that two others of the same varietyFOLLOWED: A Mis Amigos (sung in Spanish and Portuguese) in 1959 and More Cole Español in 1962. A Mis Amigoscontains the Venezuelan hit "Ansiedad", whose lyrics Cole hadLEARNED while performing in Caracas in 1958. Cole learned songs in languages other than English by rote.
After the change in musical tastes during the late 1950s, Cole's ballad singing did notSELL well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock n' roll with "Send For Me" (peaked at #6 pop). Along with his contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the popSINGLES chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts. In 1960, Nat's longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra's newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album, Wild Is Love, based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an Off-Broadway show, "I'm With You."
Cole did manage to record some hit singles during the 1960s, including in 1961 "Let There Be Love" with George Shearing, the country-flavored hit "Ramblin' Rose" in August 1962, "Dear Lonely Hearts", "That Sunday, That Summer" and "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer" (his final top-ten hit, reaching #6 pop).
Cole performed in many short films, sitcoms, and television shows and played W. C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues (1958). He also appeared in The Nat King Cole Story, China Gate, and The Blue Gardenia (1953). In January 1964, Cole made one of his final television appearances on The Jack Benny Program. Cole was introduced as "the best friend a song ever had", and sang "When I Fall in Love". It was one of Cole's last performances. Cat Ballou (1965), his final film, was released several months after his death.
Around the time Cole launched his singing career, he entered into Freemasonry. He was raised in January 1944 in the Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 in California. The lodge was named after fellow Prince Hall mason and jazz musician Fats Waller. Cole was "an avid baseball fan", particularly of Hank Aaron. In 1968, Nelson Riddle related an incident from some years earlier and told of music studio engineers, searching for a source of noise, finding Cole listening to a game on a transistor radio.
Cole met his first wife while they were on tour for the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. He was only 17 when they married. She was the reason he landed in Los Angeles and formed the Nat King Cole trio. His first marriage, to Nadine Robinson, ended in 1948. On March 28, 1948 (Easter Sunday), just six days after his divorce became final, Cole married singer Maria Hawkins Ellington (although Maria had sung with the Duke Ellington band, she was not related to Duke Ellington). The Coles were married in Harlem'sAbyssinian Baptist Church by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They had five children: Natalie (born 1950), who herself would go on to have a successful career as a singer; adopted daughter Carole (1944–2009, the daughter of Maria's sister), who died of lung cancer at 64; adopted son Nat Kelly Cole (1959–95), who died of AIDS at 36; and twin daughters Casey and Timolin (born 1961).
Cole had affairs throughout his marriages. Cole was with Maria during his illness, and she stayed with him until his death. In an interview, Maria expressed no lingering resentment over his affairs. Instead, she emphasized his musical legacy and the class he exhibited in all other aspects of his life.
In August 1948, Cole purchased a house from Col. Harry Gantz, the former husband of Lois Weber, in the all-whiteHancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving in. Cole retorted, "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."
Cole fought racism all his life and rarely performed in segregated venues. In 1956, he was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, with the Ted Heath Band (while singing the song "Little Girl"), by three members of the North Alabama Citizens Council (a group led by Education of Little Tree author Asa "Forrest" Carter, himself not among the attackers), who were apparently attempting to kidnap him. The three male attackers ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole and his band. Although local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, the ensuing melée toppled Cole from his piano bench and injured his back. Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South. A fourth member of the group who had participated in the plot was later arrested in connection with the act. All were later tried and convicted for their roles in the crime.
In 1956, he was contracted to perform in Cuba and wanted to stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, but was not allowed to because it operated a color bar. Cole honored his contract, and the concert at the Tropicana was a huge success. The following year, heRETURNED to Cuba for another concert, singing many songs in Spanish. There is now a tribute to him in the form of a bust and a jukebox in theHOTELNacional.
After his attack in Birmingham, Cole stated: "I can't understand it ... I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?" A native of Alabama, he seemed eager to assure southern whites that he would not challenge the customs and traditions of the region. A few would keep the protests going for a while, he said, but "I'd just like to forget about the whole thing." Cole had no intention of altering his practice of playing to segregated audiences in the South. He did not condone the practice but was not a politician and believed "I can't change the situation in a day." African-American communities responded to Cole's self-professed political indifference with an immediate, harsh, and virtually unanimous rejection, unaffected by his revelations that he had contributed money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and had sued several northernHOTELS that had hired but refused to serve him. Thurgood Marshall, chief legal counsel of the NAACP, reportedly suggested that since he was an Uncle Tom, Cole ought to perform with a banjo. Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the organization, challenged Cole in a telegram: "You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite youTO JOIN us in a crusade against racism." 
Cole's appearances before all-white audiences, the Chicago Defender charged, were "an insult to his race". As boycotts of his records and shows were organized, the Amsterdam News claimed that "thousands of Harlem blacks who have worshiped at the shrine of singer Nat King Cole turned their backs on him this week as the noted crooner turned his back on the NAACP and said that he willCONTINUE to play to Jim Crow audiences." To play "Uncle Nat's" discs, wrote a commentator in The American Negro, "would be supporting his 'traitor' ideas and narrow way of thinking". Deeply hurt by the criticism of the black press, Cole was also suitably chastened. Emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation "in any form", he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He quickly and conspicuously paid $500 to become a life member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was anACTIVE and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington in 1963.
In September 1964 Cole beganLOSING WEIGHT and suffering from severe back pain. Cole's declining health was made more difficult by the stresses of his personal and professional life. He was appearing in a touring musical revue, Sights and Sounds, commuting to Los Angeles to film music for Cat Ballou, and was becoming increasingly involved an extramarital relationship with a 19 year old Swedish dancer, Gunilla Hutton, which led Maria Cole to contemplate divorce. Cole collapsed with pain at the Sands in Vegas where he had earlier been performing, and was finally persuaded by friends to seek medical help in December when working in San Francisco. A cancerous tumor on his left lung in an advanced state of growth was clearly visible on a chest X-ray and Cole was diagnosed with lung cancer, and given months to live. Cole carried on working against his doctors wishes, and made his final recording sessions from December 1-3 in San Francisco, with an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael which would be released on the album L-O-V-E shortly before his death.
ColeENTEREDSt. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on December 7, and began cobalt therapy on December 10. Frank Sinatra performed in Cole's place at the grand opening of the new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center on December 12. Cole's conditioned gradually worsened, but he was released from hospital over the New Year's period. At home Cole was able to see the hundreds of thousands of cards and letters that had been sent after news of his illness had become public. ColeRETURNED to hospital in early January, and sent $5,000 to Hutton, who later telephoned Maria and implored her to divorce him. Maria confronted her husband, and Cole finally broke off the relationship with Hutton. Cole's illness reconciled him with his wife, and he vowed that if heRECOVERED he would go on television to urge people to stop smoking. On January 25 Cole's left lung was removed, and his father died of heart problems on February 1. Throughout Cole's illness his publicists promoted the idea that he would soon be well and working, despite the private knowledge of his terminal condition. On Valentine's Day Cole and his wife briefly left St. John's to drive by the sea, and Cole died at the hospital early in the morning of February 15 aged 45.
Cole's last album, L-O-V-E, was recorded in early December 1964—just a few days before heENTERED the hospital for cancer treatment—and was released just prior to his death. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard Albums chart in the spring of 1965. A "Best Of" album went gold in 1968. His 1957 recording of "When I Fall In Love" reached #4 in the UK charts in 1987.
In 1983, an archivist for EMI Electrola Records, EMI (Capitol's parent company) Records' subsidiary in Germany, discovered some songs Cole had recorded but that had never been released, including one in Japanese and another in Spanish ("Tu Eres Tan Amable"). Capitol released them later that year as the LPUnreleased.
In 1991, Mosaic Records released TheCOMPLETECapitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, an 18-compact-disc set consisting of 349 songs. (This special compilation also wasAVAILABLE as a 27-LP set.)
Also in 1991, Natalie Cole and her father had a hit when Natalie's own newly recorded vocalTRACK was added to her father's 1961 stereo re-recording of his original 1951 hit of "Unforgettable" and mixed into a new duet version as part of a tribute album to her father's music. The song and album of the same name won seven Grammy awards in 1992.